Patience is a Virtue

Slow-growing dogwood trees take years to develop. Photo: Lise Jenkins


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

For a long time, I was into instant gratification in the garden. The acre allotted for the garden had large bare patches I wanted to fill — and my philosophy was “the quicker the better.”

Patience Flynn. Photo: Kit Flynn

Of course, as I and the garden both matured, I realized that what I needed was greater patience. I even named my new canine companion, Patience, in an effort to remind me of my heretofore rashness.

When dealing with perennials, shrubs and trees, items that will (hopefully) reside in our gardens for the long haul, patience is a required trait, simply because these plants begin their residency on the small side. I learned this lesson the hard — and expensive — way.

I became enamored with palms that can flourish in zone 7. In my search for palms, I found a nurseryman who carried large specimens, and at great expense ordered three 6-7 feet-high Trachycarpus fortunei, windmill palms. This was a case of instant gratification at its finest.

At the same time, I discovered a 1½-foot baby windmill palm — my palm mania dictated that I couldn’t have too many palms. Ten years later, the baby is gorgeous, and is both taller and fuller than the semi-adults long ago installed. A little patience would have saved me a lot of money.

Perennials are in it for the long haul, unlike the annuals who want to bloom and form seeds until they die of exhaustion. Don’t get me wrong, many perennials are also concentrating on seed formation, but with some exceptions, they aren’t as maniacal about the process.

Consequently, they frequently concentrate on root growth while adapting to their new home. They might not bloom the first year and most will not attain their ultimate height and width until the third year. Two years ago, I planted the rose “Madame Anisette” and she just sat there that first year without throwing out one bloom. She seemed to concentrate all her energies in growing one cane that ended up being eight feet tall.

A quick search on the Internet informed me that this was her typical behavior, that I might see a couple of blooms during her second year, but the third year would make it all worthwhile. This has proven to be true, for while she’s still not overladen with roses, the ones she does produce are gorgeous and fragrant while her foliage is totally disease-free.

I find that smoke trees, Cotinus coggygria, take at least three years before they are going to smoke. And when they do, what a glorious sight! Without the smoke they are rather uninteresting, so the gardener has three boring growing seasons before being rewarded.

The moral of the story is that unless the plant, tree or shrub has demonstrated unwelcomed attributes such as excessive seediness, gardeners really have to give their new plantings at least three years before removing them. Plants are like children, going from toddlers to weedy teenagers before settling down to adulthood.

None of us would throw the baby out with the bathwater, now would we?

When I first started to garden in the midst of my instant gratification phase, I planted a lot of annuals. Now, I like annuals but use them sparingly as accent plants. The problem with planting them for waves of color is twofold: (1) some may peter out before the growing season ends, leaving holes in the garden; and (2) the sun changes during the summer.

Simply put, what looks good, clean and refreshing in May can appear tired and out of place by late August.

Consequently, my advice is to develop patience. Good plants take their time to develop. Think of all those quick-growing Bradford pears and Leyland cypresses that were unable to live up to their press as they proved to have too many vulnerabilities.

Garden for the future, not necessarily for the present. And, if you find you need to acquire patience, remember that it’s a great name for a dog.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

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